Posted: March 1, 2013


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A primary used to mean doom to the party that had it. Not so much for the Democrats anymore.

Delaware actually has not had much history with statewide primaries. It did not have them until 1970, when it did away with party conventions as the method for deciding the nominations.

This was back in the day of smoke filled rooms, when people not only could smoke, but the parties mattered enough to fill rooms. The only vestige nowadays is the pope, whose election inside the most exclusively filled room in the world comes by smoke.

Whether the future holds any primaries for 2014, it is too early to tell, but the past shows how much their nature has changed.

There have only been 40 statewide primaries. Just 40. The amount seems surprisingly low, considering that Mike Protack tried for so many statewide offices, it feels like he ran in 40 Republican primaries by himself.

The Republicans finally figured out how to outmaneuver Protack in the last election. They handed him the nomination for council president in New Castle County, where the odds are seriously stacked against them, and let the Democrats beat up on him for a change.

Times were, nobody who won a statewide primary could win in November. Nor did it matter whether the primary was momentous or inconsequential, or whether the candidates involved were a sitting governor, like Russell Peterson in 1972, or a walk-on, never to be heard from again, the nominees went down in November.

Primaries were exercises in futility. Resentment lingered, split the party, and let the other side slip into office. It was like Russian roulette, minus the blood.

The first to break through the primary wall was S.B. Woo, a physics professor who won a three-way Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 1984, but it was a near thing. He won the general election by 429 votes. A Democrat for insurance commissioner also broke the jinx that year.

Woo was no trend setter, however. Of the 40 statewide primaries, the nominees have only won office 14 times.

Discount the nuisance primaries -- like somebody named Keith Spanarelli coming out of nowhere for a Democratic senatorial primary against Tom Carper and going back to nowhere -- and it leaves only 10 instances in which a candidate won a serious primary and was elected.

Timing is everything, though. Of those 10 instances, five of them have come in the last five elections, all of them involving Democrats.

Delaware changed. The Democrats surged, the Republicans retreated, and as the two-party system withered, the Democrats discovered they could win elections even after primaries.

The classic, of course, is the 2008 Democratic primary between Jack Markell and John Carney for governor. Markell won and went on to be the governor, but it is hard to say Carney "lost," not when he wound up as a congressman by the next election.

It was more like Carney was just the guy who came in second.

Primaries no longer spooked the Democrats. Whoever won, they figured would be elected as the next governor.

"I don't think there was any question," Markell said.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had a signature primary of their own. As if people could forget, it was Christine O'Donnell's upset of Mike Castle for the 2010 nomination for senator, and the party has not stopped reeling since.

Primaries are not what they used to be. Democrats can have primaries and beat Republicans, although Republicans might wonder what the big deal is.

Republicans can have primaries and beat Republicans, too.